Lunar researchers prepare for next ‘giant leap’

As Canada joins NASA’s space mission to explore the mysteries of the moon within the next decade, Western will play a key role in preparing for the journey.

Western research teams will receive funding for six new space exploration projects, funded through the Flights and Fieldwork for the Advancement of Science and Technology (FAST), the Canadian Space (CSA) agency announced recently. The awards are part of the agency’s Lunar Exploration Analogue Deployment initiative – an important step towards that next giant leap in moon research.

In two newly announced projects, Earth Sciences professor Gordon Osinski will run an analog mission to return lunar samples and Electrical and Computer Engineering professor Ken McIsaac will develop artificial-intelligence algorithms that could help a rover analyze and classify lunar materials autonomously.

CSA also recently awarded researchers at Western’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration (CPSX) four of 31 grants in a previous FAST round. Osinski and McIsaac are principal investigators, along with Earth Sciences professors Catherine Neish and Physics and Astronomy professor Stan Metchev. Other Western researchers will participate as co-investigators and collaborators on these projects, as well as on two other recently announced FAST projects.

All told, the grants total $1 million to scientists’ work in three departments.

The awards are a reflection of the depth and breadth of Western’s expertise as Canada’s multidisciplinary go-to place for space research, Osinski said.

“To me, it’s talking about the growing strength of CPSX, this scientific field and this whole domain,” said the CPSX Acting Director, who also serves as Director of the Canadian Lunar Research Network.

The work will be conducted during the next two to three years, as humans again focus on a return to the moon for the first time since 1972. NASA plans to build a small space station in the Moon’s orbit by 2026. The Lunar Gateway project, an international partnership led by the United States, will be a way-station for trips to and from the lunar surface.

Canada, in turn, is investing $2.4 billion during the next 24 years for Canada’s space program, which will include a new Canadarm to repair and maintain Gateway, as well as a renewed push to develop artificial-intelligence-based technologies to automate robotic learning on space stations and vehicles.

The research benefits not just lunar work but helps build capacity for understanding other planets and moons elsewhere in the solar system, researchers say.

Osinski is working to test Martian environments, using Canada’s Arctic as a parallel environment; Neish is studying volcanic areas of Earth as analogs of similar conditions on Mars.

“We see landforms on other planets that we see on Earth and ask, ‘Do they form in the same way that they do on Earth or don’t they?’ That’s comparative planetology. We can’t go to Mars with people – yet – so we’re doing this research with similar environments on Earth to better understand and better interpret the data that’s coming from spacecraft,” Osinski said.

Grants such as these allow researchers to seed into lunar missions by adding to broader knowledge about how planets and planetary satellites work.

Analog space work is helpful for four reasons, Osinski explained.

“There’s that pure science aspect – better interpreting data we have from spacecraft.

“There’s the technology testing and development – taking rovers into the field to test them in natural locations or taking instruments out there (to test).

“There’s the training piece and that’s a big part of this FAST program – capacity building and getting students training so they can get their feet wet. Under simulated analog conditions, it sets them up for being involved in actual space missions. We have good success in that already.”

The fourth important aspect, he said, helps build and sustain public outreach and enthusiasm.

“Space missions take so long to develop. We’re going to the Moon, but we’re not going there for a few years. These analog missions play a key role in growing the public interest in space missions.”